Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is an Oscar-winning screwball comedy and satire about a humble man who inherits millions of dollars.
“But, in the opinion of the court, you are not only sane but you’re the sanest man that ever walked into this courtroom.” – Judge May
Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) is a humble man living in Mandrake Falls, Vermont during the Great Depression. You would think that his life would change drastically upon inheriting $20 million from his uncle, Martin Semple. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. He’s an eccentric character, no doubt about it. But much like the later Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, other people would prefer to get their way with him. After rewatching the film for the first time in several years, one can see why Capra preferred to bring Cooper back for the political sequel. Instead, he declined and the film was reworked in favor of James Stewart and the rest is history.
John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), an attorney representing the late Semple, finds Deeds and brings him back to New York City. Cedar gives orders to Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander), a former newspaperman, to make sure nobody gets near the man. Meanwhile, Cedar doesn’t want others to know that he embezzled money from the estate so he tries to get power of attorney from deeds! Cobb has one job and expertly fails at doing it because next thing you know, Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) is on the scene as a newspaper journalist posing as a poor worker, Mary Dawson. She gains his trust but then she goes ahead and writers articles that refer to him with derogatory language and saying he’s inherited riches. He may be a “Cinderella man” but he’s still a human being with feelings!
It’s no surprise that Deeds is heartbroken upon learning the truth about Babe from Cobb. Cobb starts outright respect him after seeing how many opportunists he successfully fends off. Even though Babe quits her job at the paper, the damage is done to Longfellow Deeds’s reputation. While it’s a happy story in the end, one could say that she definitely learned her lesson. It almost didn’t happen because Carole Lombard was set to star in the film. However, she decided to quit the role in favor of My Man Godfrey, which earned her an Oscar nomination. All around, it’s a win for everybody. This enabled Jean Arthur to have her first prominent role in a feature film, which led to reteaming with James Stewart in the aforementioned Mr. Smith.
But anyway, Deeds is ready to go back when a dispossessed farmer (John Wray) starts threatening him. After the farmer cools down, Deeds realizes what he could do with his newfound fortune. Naturally, Cedar works to have Deeds declared mentally incompetent. Of course, this plan backfires on him. Deeds wants to give the money away to people that really needed, much to the dismay of everyone else around. When he finally takes the stand to defend himself, he calls out everyone else for their own eccentricities.
The film marked a game changer for Gary Cooper’s career. Before this film, he was known for his sexuality on the screen. As a result of this film, he take on all-American roles and become a screen legend. It also allowed him to no longer fall under the reigns of the studio system. He had the power to take on whichever roles he wanted from then on out. Oscars would follow for his work in Sergeant York and High Noon. Meanwhile, he would reteam with Capra on Meet John Doe and take on corruption.
Robert Riskin’s screenplay knows how to find both the screwball comedy and the satire of it all. It’s a different type of satire than Mr. Smith but it’s still a social satire. With Frank Capra behind the camera, the end result is a brilliant film. The filmmaker would follow this film up with others that focused on societal problems. Similar themes would show up in other films. Not only this but from this point on, he would not rush films into production. Instead, he would take his time and make sure the script was ready. Capra would follow It Happened One Night with his second of three Oscars for directing. He took home the film’s sole Oscar. It earned nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Gary Cooper), Original Story (Robert Riskin), and Sound Recording (John P. Livadary).
AFI honored the film as one of the best comedies of all time. They also honored it as one of the 100 Cheers. Meanwhile, the film has the responsibility of introducing “doodle” into the American vernacular.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town finds the comedy while also having something to say about coming into riches.
DIRECTOR: Frank Capra
SCREENWRITER: Robert Riskin
CAST: Gary Cooper, with Jean Arthur, and George Bancroft, Lionel Stander, Douglass Dumbrille, Raymond Walburn
Columbia released Mr. Deeds Goes to Town on April 12, 1936. Grade: 4.5/5
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